On July 1 of this year, de Efteling—a world-class theme park south of Amsterdam, the Netherlands—opened Symbolica: the Palace of Fantasy right at the heart of the beautiful park. De Efteling’s core theme is fairy tales and character-driven, lavishly-detailed stories, from its classic Storybook Forest to the Pirates of the Caribbean-esque Fata Morgana. The park is filled with vignettes and visual delights featuring moving characters (motorized and animatronic figures, most of them built by artists and technicians at the park) set within a serene forest dotted with gardens, ponds and rivers, and teeming with wildlife. It’s also home to one of the best collections of dark rides outside a Disney theme park.

Symbolica is the realization of a concept that dates back nearly a decade. After drawing most of its stories for attractions from the realm of classic fairy and folk tales from around the world, de Efteling designers wanted a character and storyline unique to the park. In 1989, de Efteling designer Henny Knoet created Pardoes de Tovernar, a new impish jester character to act as a mascot for the park for use in signage, shows, meet and greet characters, and merchandising. Over the following decade, Pardoes was joined by a cast of fantasy characters from a mystic planet called Symbolica—poetically located, according to a de Efteling fan site, “someplace at the edge of our consciousness”—and a well-defined and utterly unique architectural and design style perfect for replication inside the park.

Pardoes and friends continued to be a presence at de Efteling in shows and merchandise, and the concept of a permanent attraction featuring the characters and their world was proposed a number of times in the 90s and 2000s. When Knoet retired from de Efteling, he left a detailed style guide encompassing nearly every aspect of Symbolica and its inhabitants—the document would prove instrumental in bringing the world and its characters to life. A massive multi-part project began in 2011 to transform the central corridor of the park into a space reflecting Symbolica-style design cues – at the time, this section and the design was referred to as “Hartenhof” (Court of Hearts). Star of this transformation was a new pancake restaurant named for the Symbolica cook, Polle, and featuring a highly-detailed interior with moving props, unique soundscape and music, and architectural cues that echoed a cohesive motif throughout the new area. The proposed Symbolica attraction promised to build on this depth of detail and provide a permanent home for Pardoes and friends.

Finally, in January 2016 de Efteling announced that Symbolica: the Palace of Fantasy was underway in the location of the originally proposed Hartenhof attraction. Early details were scant, but the attraction was slated to be the most elaborate and expensive ever produced for the park, and set to open to coincide with de Efteling’s 65th anniversary. As the visible construction continued, more artwork and details were released as the towering spires of the Palace of Fantasy grew in the very heart of the park.

Backing up a bit, Garner Holt Productions, Inc. (GHP) was approached in late 2015 to look over an animatronics scope for what would ultimately be announced as the Symbolica attraction. After some back and forth with the design and engineering team led by de Efteling veteran, and friend, Mark Jansen (who began his career selling French fries at the park and now leads its engineering efforts) about functions for individual animated figures and props, we commenced work in early 2016, planning on delivery in the first quarter of 2017. In all, GHP was responsible for the design and production of ten animatronic characters for the attraction, including the four hero Pardoes figures, two O.J. Punctuel (the king’s faithful lackey) figures, the wizard Almar, cook Polle, Princess Pardijn, and King Pardulfus, along with related show action systems, animated props, and show control.

We had some experience working with de Efteling on the animatronic Baron Gustave Hooghmoed for its Baron 1898 dive coaster pre-show in 2014/15. This was a wonderful and enlightening experience, and exposed us at GHP to the creative approach de Efteling’s designers take. De Efteling has a unique house art style reminiscent of its original and emeritus art director, the famed illustrator Anton Pieck. This style looks very much like the gorgeous European-inspired backgrounds of Disney’s classic animated films Snow White and Pinocchio, a saturated watercolor look. For the Baron, we worked to an illustration in this style and with de Efteling’s in-house sculptor to create the look of the character, taking a page from Disney’s Blaine Gibson in making an 80% realistic face with 20% caricature.

The figures for Symbolica came about in much the same way: de Efteling’s designers used Knoet’s original style guide to settle poses and locations for characters (and to design new ones), from which their sculptor created the faces and hands for O.J. Punctuel, Almar, Polle, and Pardulfus (all by hand), while GHP digitally sculpted the faces and hands for Pardoes and Pardijn (both of which have a much more cartoonish aspect to them). We utilized existing body molds and created several new ones for the attraction. Working with overall creative lead for the attraction Sander de Bruijn and character lead Peter Koppelmans, we determined poses and specific gestural action for each character in order to come up with mechanical frames for animation. Over the course of the spring and summer of 2016, and into the fall, GHP’s plastics, mechanical, and electronics teams worked to bring the fantasy characters of Symbolica to life.

A major aspect of any animatronic-related project we undertake at GHP is the figure finishing and costuming efforts. For Symbolica, both these disciplines were called on to create unusually detailed wigs, mustaches, and beards, along with incredibly detailed costumes. Our costume department has created clothes for thousands of figures around the world and hundreds for the Disney parks, including some of the most elaborate costumes for their attractions. The designs for Symbolica, however, were by far the most lavishly detailed and complex (and time-consuming) we’d ever seen. The costumes are a perfect example of de Efteling’s designers’ laser-like, nearly obsessive focus on detail: each costume had multiple layers of very specific fabrics of unique weights and finishes, coupled with details like sewn-in sparkling jewels, feathers, hand-painted mock embroidery, furs, custom buttons and clasps, buckles, bells, tassels, and more. In the theatrical show lighting of the attraction, many details would be lost in shadows or blocked by props, but for the brief moment that the light catches and reflects from a carefully-placed crystal on Almar’s flowing cloak, the detail sparkles into life. This is the sort of thing that we love at GHP, and few clients will put in the effort and expense to pull it off.

In December, the animatronics were ready to begin pre-programming. In this phase, we can exercise the characters under power for the first time, and test and adjust elements that need to be faster or slower, or have more or less range of motion. At the same time, we can begin programming show sequences to illustrate how the figures will perform in the attraction and set them to cycle for many hours at a time to weed out further issues. Along with another programmer, I animated figures for many of the scenes before our clients from de Efteling arrived in the middle of the month to inspect their new animatronics and approve them for shipping. This is always an exciting moment in a project—the first time a client sees a finished product moving and “acting” as it will in an attraction. It’s the result of many months and even years of design and focus on bringing a character from an idea to a sketch to a detailed drawing to a sculpt to a plastic form to a fully-animated, dimensional animatronic figure. I worked with the de Efteling team over the next few days to get a better feel for the performances they wanted for Symbolica, then we crated up the figures and sent them on their long overseas journey to Kaatsheuvel, the Netherlands.

Since de Efteling has an incredible team of technically-inclined talents at the park, GHP’s only on site role would be finishing the show programming for our figures and tying our control systems into the master show control system for the attraction. This effort fell to me, and I spent over a month on site programming and reprogramming show sequences as timing, guest point of view, and other considerations changed time and again during the on-site programming phase (under the watchful eye of veteran de Efteling designer, and friend, Robert-Jaap Jansen, who would playfully act out all the scenes for me to use as a model—this is sometimes one of the best aspects of working in theme parks: nobody is afraid to look silly in the service of new rides and shows). This sort of extemporaneous work isn’t unusual when attractions get to this point—as carefully as things are planned ahead of time, you can never get the real feeling for space, lighting, sightlines, and other considerations until you’re on site, working with the ride system and with animatronics in their final locations.

Most of the animatronic sequences were simple, 40 seconds to a minute long loops or triggered performances. Some required adding special “ease-in” programming to take a figure or group of figures from one show (usually a background loop of simple “keep alive” gestures) to main sequences without a sudden jolt or shudder as actuators receive commands to go from one position to another very quickly. In the pre-show scene, there are more than forty unique sequences for the O.J. Punctuel and Pardoes character interaction, which makes for very time-consuming, complex work. All the figures (which either had unique show control units per character or shared across a vignette) were connected from their show controllers to the main PLC via Ethernet network. From this PLC, our figures are told to turn on or off, to go through exercise sequences for maintenance, to perform when vehicles approach, to loop or stop, and to turn to a specific pose in the event of an emergency. All of these sequences go through a careful testing process to make sure all units are properly addressed and that they behave as expected over and over (and over) again.

De Efteling has a fan following that rivals any Disney park, with vocal groups who love the history and incredible presence of the park. As a result, anticipation was very high for Symbolica, driven in part by a series of well-produced teasers showing progress on the attraction outside and in and giving hints at the guest experience to come. Work with the show control team ran right up to opening day, so I was able to experience the attraction with some of its first guests. Their reaction was exceptional: Symbolica, it was immediately noted, was an absolute home run for de Efteling. More than that, many commentators have remarked that it meets and in many ways exceeds the quality and detail of some of Disney’s most lavish dark ride experiences. From the trackless ride system (providing multiple pathways through each scene along with an interactive touch screen for mini-games and other interactivity), to the expert lighting and audio systems, gorgeous custom score, props and animated figures, all ensconced in sets so detailed, guests will find more and more little hidden gems each time they ride, Symbolica: the Palace of Fantasy is a triumph of design and technology.

From my perspective (I’m obviously rather biased), these accolades are entirely earned. Symbolica is not merely the greatest attraction at de Efteling, it is the best in all of Europe, and, in my opinion, among the best in the world. All of us at GHP are enormously proud of our work for the attraction, and of the collaboration with de Efteling’s wonderful in-house design team (they also call themselves “imagineers”). This year, the park expects to host more than 5 million visitors, making them one of the top European destinations. With Symbolica, it’s worth travelling from anywhere on the planet to visit.